An anti-abortion protest in Belfast. Photo: Getty
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Have we reached the tipping point for abortion rights in Northern Ireland?

A new legal challenge to Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws marks a huge success for the pro-choice movement.

Since Northern Ireland as a state first came into being almost a hundred years ago, stability and constancy have not been its strong suits.

As Northern Ireland self immolated into the violence and political unrest of The Troubles, it brought generations of political chaos for locals, but one element of politics has always remained a constant. Both sides of the conflict have always been able to agree on one common enemy – the woman who wants to choose.

Abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland unless a termination is required to save a woman’s life or to avoid permanent and serious damage to her health. If the foetus is severely disabled, the woman was raped or conception was a result of incest – terminations are illegal. Access to abortion for Northern Irish women is forbidden under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and the 1945 Criminal Justice Act.

Thus, in 2015, we mark 70 years since Northern Ireland’s abortion laws were last altered. Since then, the laws have remained fundamentally touched, gathering dust on pages which are themselves naturally disintegrating through the material processes of time. Yet the laws themselves linger on, revered and perfectly preserved, like the relics of a saint.

Today, the High Court in Belfast will hear a legal challenge to the law.

A case brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will be heard as the group argue that terminations should made possible for women who conceive as a result of rape or incest, or where there is “serious malformation of the foetus”. Regardless of whether the legal challenge is successful, merely having the case considered by the court is a huge success for many in the local pro-choice movement. It will be the first major challenge to the status quo in living memory, a once unimaginable point.

The hearing comes quickly on the heels of a number of momentous milestones in the struggle for women’s right to choose in Northern Ireland. The debate has surged forward in the last two years to a point where the law could now feasibly be altered in small, but meaningful ways.

In 2012, the unthinkable and unexpected happened when Marie Stopes opened a private clinic in Belfast city centre. They said they would provide medical, not surgical, abortions up to nine weeks gestation- which they argued was legal within the framework of UK law. Outrage swelled locally and the Northern Irish attorney general, who is chief legal advisor to the devolved power sharing assembly and a devout Catholic, called for an investigation into its legality. However, the clinic has refused to reveal if it has yet performed any terminations in the building and insisted that its actions were legal. After much fury from pro-life protestors, the clinic was officially registered with health authorities the following year and has been allowed to operate.

In December of last year, Justice Minister David Ford announced that he was launching a public consultation to alter the law in case of what he assured the public would be only “two very narrow sets of circumstances”. Namely, when a foetus has a fatal abnormality and is neither viable inside the womb or immediately after birth, or if conception had been a result of a sexual crime such as rape or incest.

A report by Amnesty International in October of last year revealed that 69 per cent of people living in Northern Ireland believe that accessing abortion locally should be an option in the case of a woman being raped. Interestingly, Protestants were more likely to be in favour than Catholics, 73 per cent compared to 62 per cent. 68 per cent of those surveyed felt it should be available in the case of incest, while 60 per cent agreed it should be an option when there was a fatal foetal abnormality.

At least behind closed doors and when responding to surveys in private, the religious rhetoric that once gripped Northern Ireland seems to have lost its grasp.

Yet despite the majority of locals wanting the law to be changed, politicians at Stormont continue to push forward the anti-choice agenda.

The Northern Irish live in a society whose cornerstones are rigid religion and all-knowing patriarchs who decide what is best for the rest of our community. For many of our politicians, their theological beliefs imbue them with the sense of a divine right to impose their religion on others, whilst the legacy of sectarian, bipartisan politics enacts itself here in the refusal to budge an inch from unflinching, absolutist stances. This culture has lead to politicians continuing to push a line which doesn’t reflect what its citizens want when it comes to modernising the abortion laws.

Only one in five members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are female, meaning that the state has the lowest numbers of female representation of any devolved institutions in Western Europe. This means that the voices of women in Northern Ireland often go unheard. Indeed, in response to Minister Ford’s consultation on changing the abortions laws, BBC Northern Ireland held a debate which saw a male interviewer discuss the issue with three men and one woman. It’s difficult to imagine the English BBC getting away with doing the same, but here no-one batted an eyelid at the idea of men dominating discussions on women’s rights.

The Republican party Sinn Fein is the only major political party to support changing the abortion law. The left of centre nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party is theologically catholic and firmly “pro life”, while the hardline right wing Democratic Unionist Party holds the same view based on its Protestant values. Of the remaining major parties, the Ulster Unionist Party and the centre ground Alliance Party say that it is a matter of personal conscience for each of their politicians to decide.

Yet, while the men on Stormont Hill pout and pontificate on the matter, more than a thousand Northern Irish women fly above their heads each year on budget airline carriers destined for England, in order to access basic healthcare.

Northern Ireland lags severely behind the rest of the UK when it comes to social attitudes. The fight for reproductive rights will be a long battle. We’ve long passed the tipping point socially, and next week’s High Court hearing and the Justice Minister’s consultation could see this finally reflected legally.

Allowing women to have a termination after rape, incest or a fatal abnormality of the foetus, would not bring local women the rights of their sisters in the rest of the UK. But it would be a meaningful start. To alter Northern Ireland’s abortion laws for the first time in seventy years would be a hard won battle in a severely stagnant society.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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